Craig Venter’s life decoded


J. Craig Venter was an ex-surfer and an Army medic in Vietnam. He became a biologist and along with Dr. Francis Collins of the National Institute of Health became the first scientist to map the human genome in 2000, becoming TIME’s Man of the Year.

Though Collins was not present, scores of Venter’s Old Town neighbors, friends and colleagues did show at Landini Bros. at 116 King Street Sunday evening to honor one of the 20th century’s greatest scientists, who’s just published an autobiography, “A Life Decoded – My Genome: My Life.”

“There are three maybe, four of us here tonight who were fired from Celera Genomics,” Venter chuckled, referencing the former company he led to beat out a $3 billion federal government initiative to map out the human genome. “So many people I worked with have gone on to great things.”

While Celera is now a business unit of Rockville-based Applera Corp., it was established in 1998 with Venter from The Institute for Genomic Research as its first president. While there, Venter and Dr. Hamilton Smith led the first successful effort to sequence an entire organism’s genome.

The high-flying stock of Celera once reached $260, making Venter, briefly, a billionaire on paper. “One problem with Craig is he’s too modest,” said Smith, winner of the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize. “He works in the lab every day.”

Venter, Smith and their researchers were among the first to show the feasibility of the whole genome shotgun strategy for sequencing larger genomes. This strategy contrasted with the publicly funded Human Genome Project, which used a slower but safer clone by clone sequencing strategy.

Venter sequenced his own genome at a fraction of the cost of the public project, spurring the public Human Genome Project to change its own strategy. Now Venter, working from labs at his Rockville-based J. Craig Venter Institute, is seeking to patent the first life-form created by man.

Venter, who celebrated his 61st birthday days before, was honored with the book party by his Old Town neighbors, Mandy Locke and Dr. David Kiernan, Venter’s business partner and sailing crew mate. Kiernan wrote him a note several years ago offering to crew on his 95-foot racing yacht, Sorcerer II. “David volunteered to crew on a transatlantic sailing race, and as a physician and a lawyer, I thought he could be pretty useful,” Venter said. He then joked, “We won the race even though he slept most of the way.”

Venter is engaged to be married to Heather E. Kowalski, who lives with him in Old Town. Kowalski also serves as his publicist and traveling companion, helping to navigate a whirlwind book tour which has so far taken them as far afield as London, England and Glacier Bay, Alaska. “I hoped to stay engaged forever,” Venter joked. “But a marriage is much more full of promise.” 
President George W. Bush and France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy visited the Mount Vernon Estate Wednesday, in what was the first time in six years a French head of  State has made an official visit to the United States. Mount Vernon officials said the stage for the meeting is symbolic because it was at Mount Vernon that the French hero of the Revoluntionary War, the Marquis de Lafayette, established a strong relationship with our first president.  Lafayette visited Mount Vernon several times between 1784 and 1825, but the French connection to the new nation had been strong since the young aristocrat joined Washingtons army to help lead the revolutionary fight against the British. The marquis named his son George Washington Lafayette.

Bush chose Mount Vernon as the place to hold meetings with Sarkozy to reaffirm the deep historical bonds shared by the two countries, according to a White House spokesman. Mount Vernon’s Executive Director Jim Rees attended the State Dinner Nov. 6 at The White House, and then the two leaders met Wednesday at the Estate, to discuss working together to strengthen security and democracy in Afghanistan and preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.